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The marvellously engineered cane bridges in the Jimi

Cane bridge over the Tsau river
The cane bridge over the Tsau River


DUBLIN - Sometimes on bush journeys in the Papua New Guinea Highlands it was embarrassing to witness five or six year old kids running freely - and safely - back and forth across a single tree-trunk bridge over a rushing river.

The embarrassment was that I then had to be assisted by many hands as I gingerly inched my way across.

Luckily in the Jimi Valley of the then Western Highlands there were many cane bridges, much easier to traverse, which somewhat alleviated my anxiety.

The cane bridge shown in this 1971 photo, was constructed across the Tsau river in the Jimi. The Tsau flows into the Jimi River which progresses into the Yuat and then the mighty Sepik.

In 1971-72 I was based at Karap in the Jimi, which is now part of Jiwaka Province. The Jimi Valley runs parallel to the Wahgi Valley, but there are major differences.

Fr Garry Roche and companions
Fr Garry Roche & companions pause as they cross a small cane bridge

The Wahgi Valley is generally very open and the Wahgi River runs from west to east, its waters ending up in the Papuan Gulf.

The Jimi Valley, by contrast, is very mountainous and its main river, the Jimi, runs east to west with its waters eventually being expelled from the Sepik into the Bismarck Sea at the substantial volume of 8,000 cubic meters a second.

Looking back on my journeys through the Jimi Valley, I now ponder the many cane bridges we encountered. I took them for granted then, but later wondered at the planning and the social cooperation that went into their construction.

If I remember correctly the Leahy brothers encountered these bridges during their early explorations in the 1930.

While stationed  at Karap, my pastoral work took me to places like Tabibuga, Manemp, Olna, Magin, Bumbi, Wum, Tsenga, Kumai, Maekmul, Por, Kauil and more.

I also visited Kol on my way to meet Fr Joe McDermott in Ambullua. And I well recall calling at the Nazarene Mission in Tsengoropa and making the trek to visit the Anglican Mission at Koinambi and then trekking on to Masump and Togban.

Many cane bridges were crossed on those journeys. Some were long and high; some were short and low; each a masterpiece of design and construction.

I last visited the Jimi around 1990 and I don’t know if these bridges still exist or not. But I feel sure there are many similar bridges scattered throughout Papua New Guinea, not yet been replaced by bridges of more modern structure.


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Rob Parer

Very few people know that in the 1950s there was a kunda (cane) bridge across the Raihu River, Aitape, at the same place where there is now a steel and concrete bridge.

During the war the Americans built a Bailey Bridge in 1944 near the mouth of the Raihu River as they required a connection between the (Marsden Matting) Tadji Airstrip and Aitape beach where small boats unloaded.

It only lasted a few months and washed away with the huge torrent of the Raihu River in flood. It is still there under the gravel.

Then a new dynamic young ADC arrived and was disgusted that, when the weekly Gibbs Sepik Norseman aircraft came, he had to drive to the Raihu River in his new LandRover. The only new vehicle in Aitape as others were still using old Army Jeeps.

Then he had to hop on a two- man canoe (government supplied Watchman) & rely on the Catholic Mission or Parers Tadji Plantation jeep to get to the Airstrip.

Worse still, if the Raihu was in flood, he would not be able to get across the Raihu.

So all of a sudden appeared half a dozen Highland policemen. Aitape had never seen Highlanders before!

Then fierce activity as these policemen had big numbers of calaboose getting kunda from the bush and all of a sudden we had a 50 metre kunda bridge which I ran across on my little BSA Motor Bike every day.

Villagers came from all over the District to see this wonder.

And the dynamic ADC was none other than the one and only Bill Brown.

I have been asking Bill & others if there is a photo of this miracle bridge as no one believes me.

Sadly one day there was a huge tree being swept down the flooded river & a branch ripped most of it away. There were a few strands left & we had to use them to get across one morning as the MV Mekong arrived from Rabaul with cargo & to pick up our 1,200 bags of copra for the Coconut Products oil mill at Rabaul.

We lived at Tadji Plantation & the copra shed was near the present wharf.In those days we used 40 ft canoes for loading & Unloading. And it took many hours getting special labour to man the canoes. Non swimmers (100) could use the plantation workers.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The image of a horse on a kunda bridge is mind-boggling Garry.

The idea that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink is a furphy. If the horse doesn't want to go near the water it won't, to drink or otherwise.

We had Arabs and Connemara ponies for years and I know for a fact that if they didn't want to be caught or go in a float you may as well give up because they would invariably outlast you (or me at least).

Garry Roche

Phil, I remember Joe McDermott telling me he often had to find alternate places to cross the rivers when he was on horse-back. Horses would not go on those cane bridges - or even on some wooden bridges where the decking was not good.

Philip Fitzpatrick

But you always had to carry your dog across the cane ones Garry.

I was faced with a slippery green log spanning the Omati River in Gulf a few years ago. The river was clipping along at about 100 miles an hour and I just couldn't do it anymore, even on hands and knees. Got over by chopper the next day.

Up in the Star Mountains the Faiwol used to plant twin trees at strategic spots on rivers to be used many years later for bridges when they matured.

"My father planted those trees," was a familiar story.

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